Two papers released Wednesday in Neuron delve deep into the way we perceive the world, revealing that we don’t actually register much of it. Our attention systems, the authors show, are extremely ill-equipped for modern society. Rather than take in the world in a constant stream of information, consciousness oscillates in and out of focus, meaning that what we think we know about the world has actually just been pieced together from limited information. Their estimates of how often we are actually focused suggest we don’t know much about the world at all.
The findings are as much philosophical as they are scientific — enough to call into question our most basic understanding of reality into question. Both studies — one on humans by a team at the University of California Berkeley, and another on macaques done by scientists at Princeton University — sought to pin down how many times the human brain oscillates in and out of focus per minute. Four times every second, explains Princeton Neuroscience Institute Ian Fiebelkorn, Ph.D., to Inverse, the brain stops focusing on the task at hand. That’s about 240 times a minute.
“The brain is wired to be somewhat distractible.”
“The brain is wired to be somewhat distractible,” he says. “We focus in bursts, and between those bursts we have these periods of distractibility, that’s when the brain seems to check in on the rest of the environment outside to see if there’s something important going on elsewhere. These rhythms are affecting our behavior all the time.”